Sparks from the Anvil:
The Smith College Poetry Interviews

by Christian McEwen

Bauhan Publishing, 2015. ISBN 978-0-872-33194-5.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 10/22/2015

Anthologies/Collections; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Between the spring of 2009 and the fall of 2013, writer, educator, and cultural activist Christian McEwen interviewed thirty-three poets who came to read at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Sixteen of them are featured in this collection.

In Ireland, where McEwen's mother is from, Brigid was the patron saint of poetry, smithcraft and midwifery. All those different kinds of "making" and the "sparks" of insight shared led to the title of the book.

McEwen is an excellent interviewer as she knows her subject, poetry. She is knowledgeable about the work of her interviewees and she has a passion for language. She's curious too about a poet's connection to the natural world and how solitude nurtures a poet's voice.

The themes of the interviews with Matthew Dickman, Patrick Donnelly, Aracelis Girmay, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gwyneth Lewis, Patricia Smith, Jean Valentine and others have to do with early childhood memories as well as adult concerns such as challenges and obstructions; daily writing practice; sources of delight and inspiration. It's been a delight to read the interviews with a fascinating mix of poets.

As McEwen points out in her introduction, the poets "were child naturalists, child mystics, child adventurers, quietly attuned to both inner and outer landscapes." They were like Jane Hirschfield who said in her interview: "I was writing to find a self. To explore who I was, what I felt, what I thought. To fill in the missing."

W. S. Merwin knew he wanted to be a poet early on. He remembers being read the poetry of Tennyson and Robert Louis Stevenson. When Chase Twichell read Keats for the time, she understood "language as a door to go somewhere else." Michael Dickman was "transported by Neruda."

The collection begins with Annie Boutelle, founder of the Smith College Poetry Center. Each interview has a poem included and in the case of Boutelle it's "Words" from her native Scotland in her first book Nest of Thistles (University Press of New England, 2005).

The poets offer lots of advice for other poets. Annie Boutelle advises attending poetry events and steeping yourself in poetry. Rita Dove advises "read, read, read" and while doing that, "live, live, live." Jane Hirschfield says: "Take the risk of embarrassing yourself and not knowing if you have or not."

Nikkey Finney's work was fueled in part by the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements. She was poet-in-residence at Smith from 2007-2009. Now in her late fifties, she teaches her students "to tell the truth. I had to do what I so often talk about. I came to the beauty and bounty of being a lesbian when I was twenty-five, so may be a little later in my life than others, perhaps because of having been raised in the south—the very closed-minded, church-infused South."

She paid attention to women's lives as did Maxine Kumin. (Kumin died in 2014.) As poet laureate of the United States from 1981-1982, Kumin invited Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich to give readings. She was "determined to make a broad selection of women representing a variety of ethnic groups and opinions."

While poets and writers may be particularly interested in this book, it's really a book for everyone on living a fully engaged, creative life. Ad Edward Hirsch says in his interview: "We need to pay attention to the world, which is in our keeping. That's the sort of prayer there. But it's a prayer not toward the other world, but toward this one. We're here right now and we need to give our full attention to the world we're actually living in."

Christian McEwen was born in London and grew up in the Borders of Scotland. She currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her book World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (click for review) is now in its sixth printing and also available in audio format. A small companion book of daily meditations is entitled The Tortoise Diaries (click for review). Visit her website.

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